BARTELSVILLE, Okla. - The Delaware (Lenape) Tribe's lands once encompassed all of what is now New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, northern Delaware and southeastern New York state.
The tribe, once known as the peacemakers, were relocated after European settlement on the East Coast and eventually ended up - through treaties and forced marches - in what is now Oklahoma, said Jim Rementer who is directing a special Lenape Language Project.
The Lenape lost more than just land over the years, he said. They also came dangerously close to losing their language.
It is from the Eastern Algonquian family and is considered to be related to Passamaquoddy (from Maine), Wampanoag (near Martha's Vineyard), and the Shawnee, Ojibwa and Cree languages. It was the language early European settlers used when trading with tribes in the East, Rementer said.
The 1990 Native American Languages Act was supposed to preserve and promote the rights and freedom of American Indians to use, practice and develop Native languages. For many tribes it was almost too late, the director said. Fluent speakers who grew up speaking their own languages were either gone or too old to help teach younger tribal members.
And, money had to be considered. Funding for all tribal language programs was only about $2 million annually, falling far short of the need. In this past year only 29 tribes awarded grants to continue their language programs. Between 300 and 400 applied, Rementer said.
The Lenape tribe has been one of the more fortunate because its has more than 1,000 audio and videotapes of the language available. The tribe used these resources to make a CD of the Lenape language for the computer.
It is part of an effort to save the Lenape language by getting the information out to tribal members in a method that is simple to use. Rementer said there is only one known speaker of the language, who grew up speaking Lenape as a child in his home, and Edward Leonard Thompson is 96.
The 11,000-plus members of the tribe, scattered throughout the United States, don't all have access to elders or language classes, so the Lenape Language Project made the interactive, $5 CD available as a way to preserve the Lenape language. It was created to be fun and easy to use and its creators hope it will interest tribal members enough to keep the language alive, the director said.
Lenape is already being taught to youngsters in the tribe's day care centers. "It is easier to teach children languages," Rementer said.
"We had one woman whose child went to day care here (who) called up ... and told the workers she wanted to know what was going on. She said her son had always spoken perfect English, but now he was speaking in gibberish," Rementer said. "They told her to come down to the center and they gave her a tour.
"They took her into the room where the kids were using the computers and the language CD and she recognized the 'gibberish' as Lenape. She was so impressed that her son was actually learning a new language, that I believe she now works at the center."
Rementer said most tribal members have been enthusiastic and receptive about the language project and many of the CDs have been sold. He is cautious about depending on the government to fund projects such as the Lenape Language Project.
"It's one thing to keep asking the government for money and it's a whole different thing to have tribal members say, 'Well, let us see if we can come up with something to keep this project going.'"
Although classes have been held over the years, Rementer believes the CD will make the Lenape language more accessible to tribal members with busy schedules. They can learn in the privacy of their homes, at their own pace.
One of the biggest projects ahead is archiving the audio and videotapes of the language. They must be cleaned and put into a digital format, Rementer said. To help raise money for that, Lenape Nicky Kay Michael is trying to get pledges from tribal members and the public for an Ironman competition she will run in during November.
Michael will compete in the Nov. 4 Isuzu Ironman Triathlon in Florida. She is the only known Native American triathlete in the event and is asking for monetary pledges for every mile she completes in the race. Pledge cards and more information about the Lenape Language Project can be found at http://hometown.aol.com/lenapelang/.
Those interested in purchasing the CD for the computer or language tapes can contact the Delaware Gift Shop at (918) 336-5272, extension 343.